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Obama alum running for Congress denies defrauding progressive Catholic group

Denver Newsroom, Aug 3, 2020 / 07:15 pm (CNA).-  

A former board member of a progressive Catholic political advocacy organization said Monday the group’s former executive director, who is now vying for a Congressional seat in Tennessee, defrauded the organization and eventually left it bankrupt.

“I’m speaking publicly now, with very little interest in scoring points. I’m simply here to speak on the record, to establish a fact pattern, to help explain to the public the disappointing experience I have had with Chris Hale,” said James Salt, a former board member of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, in a livestream announcement Aug. 3.

Hale told CNA Monday night that “the idea that I drove the organization into bankruptcy or defrauded it is just fundamentally not true. I kept the organization going.”

Hale is running in the Democratic primary in Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District. His opponent in that race, Noelle Bivens, hosted a livestreamed event with Salt on Monday evening, after local media reported that Hale is accused of misusing email lists from his former employer to fundraise for his own benefit.

Salt said the political advocacy group, which aimed to advance Democratic candidates and policy initiatives by appealing to Catholics, was financially and legally harmed by Hale’s leadership of the organization.

“My job is simply to be on the record saying he did a great disservice to everyone who has worked with him.”

After Hale was hired as executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good in 2013, Salt said, “we began to see a pattern of Chris obfuscating and avoiding any kind of accountability.”

Eventually, Salt said, Hale lied about filing financial records, and once told colleagues he was having surgery, which was apparently not true, in order to excuse missed work.

Hale was fired from the group in 2017, Salt said, and the group was dissolved. Hale disputed that he was fired, saying he left on good terms with the board, because he was ready to “move on and have different adventures in life.”

He is accused of leaving with the organization’s mailing and email donor lists, and using them after he was fired to fundraise for an initiative he started later that year, called The Francis Project.

According to documents obtained by the Murfreesboro Voice, Hale was asked repeatedly to stop using those lists for fundraising, but continued to do so as late as December 2019.

In a Jan. 24 letter to Washington, D.C’s attorney general, Lawyers for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and the related Catholics United organization, said that The Francis Project was not actually a non-profit, but was instead a trade name connected to a Washington, DC for-profit corporation incorporated by Hale, and registered as “Christopher Hale.”

Catholics United said in its letter it was concerned that Hale’s previous affiliation with the group, “which supported policy initiatives consistent with Catholic social teachings, could mislead email recipients to believe they are making tax-deductible contributions to the Organization directly or to a similar religious nonprofit group.”

The group asked the District of Columbia’s attorney general “to review this matter and take all steps necessary to investigate and stop Mr. Hale from continuing his deceitful and fraudulent fundraising tactics.”

“Mr. Hale’s dishonest actions undermine the values of integrity and trust that are crucial in the charitable fundraising process,” the group said.

Hale told CNA Monday night that he did not take any lists from the organization. Rather, he said, he came in with a mailing list obtained from work he'd done before he was hired at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and he'd been told when he was hired that he would retain ownership of that list.

He said that was the mailing list he used for his next project, The Francis Project, that he only added personal contacts after he began working at Catholics in the Alliance for the Common Good, and there were no addtions from his former employer's database.

Hale said he made that agreement with Fred Rotondaro, who as chairman of the board at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, hired him. Rotondaro died in June 2017.

The Francis Project, Hale said, is “a small group of folks trying to build an advocacy group focused on young Catholics, millennial Catholics, in public life. It never really got feet under it because there was no one who wanted to do it full-time.”

Hale said the Francis Project sent out newsletters and spiritual reflections, and did “advocacy work, petition work especially, on particular issues of Catholic social teaching in the context of the Trump administration.”

“It was never intended to be a full-fledged group with wings beyond doing its humble work of putting out the newsletters, the daily reflections, some educational trainings and some targeted petition and advocacy work on particular issues that were of importance in Catholic social teaching.”

“We never filed as a non-profit because we never were a non-profit. We did advocacy work. None of our donations were ever considered tax deductible because they weren’t,” he added. Hale said that solicitations from the group did not suggest or imply that donations would be tax-deductible.

Hale said that he would consult with legal counsel, in response to a request from CNA to review the financial records of The Francis Project.

“It is a private organization, it is not a public non-profit.”

An archived version of the Francis Project website makes requests for donations, and opportunities to sign up for various mailing lists, including those mentioned by Hale.

Bivens, his primary opponent, said Monday night that she does not know if Hale will remain in the race. While she acknowledged that some in the district have voted already by mail, “going into a general with Chris Hale as the nominee would be a nightmare.”

Hale told CNA he has no plans to leave the race.

“With over 3,300 donors, 300 volunteers, 900 signs in voters’ yards, and top supporters in every precinct in this community, we are running the strongest grassroots campaign rural Tennessee has ever seen. We didn’t just out raise Congressman DesJarlais by a record-breaking 5:1 margin, we out organized him 100:1. The voters of Tennessee are hungry for a new Congressman who’ll bring hospitals, health care, good jobs, living wages, and generational change to Tennessee.”

“I’m going to win this this election on Thursday and then on November 3.”

Hale ran for Congress in the same Congressional district in 2018, but lost in the Democratic primary. He has been projected by some political observers to win the 2020 primary, but is generally not projected to unseat the district's incumbent Republican congressman. The district is heavily Republican, and has been represented by physician Scott DesJarlais since 2011. DesJarlais won nearly 64% of the vote in the district’s 2018 election.

Hale said that he believes Salt's motivations for making allegations against him are purely political.

“I have become a pinball in a battle. But also, James Salt is a Bernie Sanders supporter. He’s a good man, he is a far-out Bernie Sanders supporter. My opponent is also a Bernie Sanders supporter,” Hale said, noting that allegations against him came just days before his primary election against Bivens.

“We’re three days out from an election. If this was such a contentious and bombshell legal issue, why is James waiting until three days before the election and then doing so in the context of a press conference with my opponent?”

Hale also told CNA Salt's denunciation of him is ”intensely personal” and said that Salt was jealous of the work he had done with Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He also said he had faced challenges with Salt because they differed on policy, and that there was division within the organization over worldview and strategy.

The candidate is cofounder of the Millennial Journal, and worked in 2012 as part of the Catholic outreach team in the reelection campaign of President Barack Obama.

Salt himself has been involved in controversy surrounding Catholics United.

Ahead of the 2012 election, Salt, then-executive director of Catholics United, said in a letter to pastors of Florida Catholic churches the group had recruited a network of volunteers to monitor election-related speech in churches for reputed illegal political activity. Local Catholic leaders said this appeared to be “an attempt to silence pastors on issues that are of concern to the Church this election season.”

Eventually Florida’s bishops urged pastors not to sign a pledge circulated by the group to “keep politics out of the pulpits.”

Salt previously served in faith outreach for the Kansas Democratic Party and did messaging work under then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a staunch pro-abortion rights advocate. Salt served on the 2012 Democratic Party Platform Committee.

Catholics in Alliance and Catholics United, which effectively merged in 2015, were both founded in the wake of then-Sen. John Kerry’s defeat in the 2004 presidential election campaigns. This loss was in part attributed to the failure of Democrats to sway religious voters.

In 2008 then-Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput charged that Catholics United had “confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue instead of fighting within their parties and at the ballot box to protect the unborn.”

Catholics in Alliance itself received at least $450,000 in funding from the Open Society Foundations, then known as the Open Society Institute, from 2006 to 2010. An internal foundations document from 2009 cited the group’s key role in influencing Barack Obama’s controversial 2009 Notre Dame speech, and praised its campaigns that “broadened the agenda” of Catholic voters to see abortion as just one of several election issues.

Catholics United also received funding from the Gill Foundation, founded by savvy LGBT strategist and millionaire Tim Gill. The group was listed as a partner on the website of the Arcus Foundation, which has funded dissenting Catholic groups and other religious organizations to advocate on LGBT issues as well as for stricter limits on religious freedom.

Ahead of the 2016 elections, Wikileaks posted 2012 emails apparently involving Hillary Clinton campaign chief John Podesta, at a time of significant Catholic controversy over mandatory health plan coverage of contraception.

Podesta’s email responded to Sandy Newman’s suggestion of a “Catholic Spring” revolution within the Church which, in Newman’s vivid words, “Catholics themselves demand the end of a middle ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic church.”

Podesta, a former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, replied: “We created Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to organize for a moment like this. But I think it lacks the leadership to do so now. Likewise Catholics United. Like most Spring movements, I think this one will have to be bottom up.”

According to Open Society Foundations internal documents from 2009, the departure of Catholics in Alliance co-founder Alexia Kelley to join the Obama White House left the group “without strong leadership.” Kelley eventually became president and CEO of the influential philanthropy consortium Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities.


This report was edited at 8:55 Mountain Time to include comments from Christopher Hale.



Citing impact of COVID, Camden diocese suspends participation in abuse victim fund

CNA Staff, Aug 3, 2020 / 05:21 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of Camden, New Jersey said July 31 it will suspend its participation in an independent compensation program for minor victims of clerical abuse, citing a “precipitous decline in revenue resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“[The diocese] is fast approaching a point where it will not be able to continue to borrow the funds necessary to pay the amounts awarded by the Program,” the diocese said in a July 31 statement.

The five dioceses of New Jersey announced in February 2019 the creation of the Independent Victim Compensation Program (IVCP) for victims of sexual abuse as minors by clerics in the state.

The Camden diocese began its participation in the program during June 2019. Although awards to victims already made by the program’s administrators will be paid, the diocese is instituting a moratorium on further determinations or awards, it said.

“These steps are necessary in order to maintain the critical programs that the Diocese of Camden continues to provide for the communities it serves which, now more than ever, are so essential,” the statement continued.

After agreeing on and receiving a settlement through the IVCP, an abuse victim cannot then pursue additional legal action against the diocese. All settlements are funded by the dioceses themselves.

“The program provides victims with an attractive alternative to litigation,” a statement from the IVCP read announcing its creation, adding that it would give abuse survivors a “speedy and transparent process to resolve their claims with a significantly lower level of proof and corroboration than required in a court of law.”

The Camden diocese did not respond to CNA’s request for further details about the diocese’s financial situation.

Victims’ compensation experts Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros administer New Jersey’s IVCP program. Feinberg and Biros have also been involved in the creation of compensation programs for abuse survivors in New York and Pennsylvania.

Among these programs, the IVCP is unique in being a statewide program that involves every diocese agreeing to follow the same compensation protocol.

The program does not handle claims of sexual abuse involving adults, including seminarians.

In its July 31 statement, the Camden diocese said it has paid financial settlements of more than $10 million to abuse victims since 1990.

Elsewhere, the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania suspended payments to its independent compensation program in April, citing the financial impact of the coronavirus.

New York extends window for abuse lawsuits

CNA Staff, Aug 3, 2020 / 03:30 pm (CNA).- New York on Monday extended the window in the statute of limitations for people sexually abused as children to file lawsuits against the perpetrators.

On August 3, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation extending the one-year window for Child Victims Act lawsuits until August 14, 2021. The window, which began in August of 2019, allowed for lawsuits to be filed over allegations of sex abuse long after the statute of limitations had expired.

Previously, survivors of sex abuse in the state had until the age of 23 to file criminal charges or a civil claim. Under the Child Victims Act, survivors can now file charges until age 28, or file a civil claim if they are younger than age 55.

The law also created a one-year “lookback” window for new lawsuits where the statute of limitations had already expired.

In May, Gov. Cuomo ordered that the deadline for lawsuits be extended by five months until Jan. 14, 2021, due to coronavirus-related delays in the court system. Non-essential court filings in the state had been halted in March due to the onset of the pandemic.

Now the legislation— S7082/A9036—will extend the deadline for lawsuits until August 14, 2021.

The dioceses of Buffalo and Rochester have already filed for bankruptcy, after being named in hundreds of new lawsuits under the CVA. On May 4, the Buffalo diocese asked a federal court to halt outstanding clergy sex abuse litigation as it navigated bankruptcy proceedings.

One Democratic state senator who sponsored the Child Victims Act, Brad Hoylman, said that the pandemic had caused many victims to refrain from coming forward.

“The Child Victims Act has allowed more than 3,000 brave survivors to come forward to seek justice. Yet it's clear many New Yorkers who survived child sexual abuse haven't come forward — especially during the COVID-19 crisis which has upended our courts and economy,” he said. 

A federal bankruptcy judge on July 29, however, refused to grant a five-month extension for claims against the Rochester diocese, the Rochester Catholic Courier reported on Monday.

The beatification cause of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who once served as Rochester’s bishop, has even been indirectly affected by the new lawsuits under the CVA; Sheen’s beatification was postponed shortly before it was scheduled to take place last December.

Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the prefect of Congregation for the Causes of Saints, told Catholic News Service in July that the Rochester diocese had “expressed concern” over Sheen’s possible role in controversial assignments of priests accused of sexual abuse, although no complaints against Sheen had surfaced.

Becciu said that Sheen’s beatification had been postponed “out of respect for the U.S. civil authorities, who must express their views on cases of sexual abuse that indirectly affect the period.”

Police probe arson attack at Boston-area church

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 3, 2020 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- Police are investigating two fires at Sacred Heart Church in Weymouth, Massachusetts, as arson. Both fires began overnight Sunday.

The fire damage was discovered on the morning of Monday, August 3, and the fires were set near the entrances of the church. It is unclear the extent of the damage. The fires were described by local media as being “small.” 

The fires are believed to have been set sometime between 11 p.m. on Sunday evening and 8 a.m. on Monday.

The Massachusetts Department of Fire Services told the Boston Herald in a statement that “State Troopers assigned to the State Fire Marshal’s Office are assisting Weymouth PD and Weymouth FD with an investigation” at the church. The Department of Fire Services declined to give further information. 

Terrence Donilon, the spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, told CNA that the archdiocese was working with local law enforcement, and that the archdiocese would not be commenting further until after a full investigation has been conducted. 

“Any repairs required will take place with assistance from the Archdiocese,” said Donilon. “We are confident law enforcement will get to the bottom of who was responsible and that the individual(s) will be held accountable.”

Donilon added that the archdiocese would be praying for the person who set the fires, as well as “give thanks that no one was injured.”

Sacred Heart Church was completely destroyed by a fire on June 9, 2005. That fire was believed to have started in a boiler room. The church was rebuilt, updated to modern standards, and was reopened in November 2007. 

The fires set at Sacred Heart are the second fire-related damage at a Catholic church in the Archdiocese of Boston in the last month. On July 12, a statue of the Virgin Mary outside of St. Peter’s Church in Dorchester was set ablaze. The incident is being investigated as a hate crime. 

The fire also follows a string of fires and attacks on church buildings across the country and the world in recent weeks.

An unidentified man threw a firebomb into a chapel of Managua’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Friday, severely damaging the chapel and a devotional image of Christ more than three centuries old.

The Catholic community at Queen of Peace Parish in Ocala, Florida is rebuilding after the church was set on fire last month and a Florida man was charged with arson.

A man on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia attempted last week to set fire to a crucifix outside a Catholic church, while parishioners worshiped inside the building.

A church volunteer has admitted to starting a fire at Nantes Cathedral in France on July 18, and has been charged with arson.

Another possible arson occurred in California, where a fire ravaged the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel church in Los Angeles in the predawn hours of Saturday, July 11. That fire is now being investigated for foul play.

Protestors burn Bible during Portland protests 

Denver Newsroom, Aug 3, 2020 / 02:25 pm (CNA).- Protestors in Portland, Oregon burned a Bible in the street during a protest outside a federal courthouse in the early morning hours of August 1, according to a local media report.

Around 12:30 am on Aug. 1, people started a fire in the street in front of the federal courthouse which began with the burning of a Bible, then an American flag, with “more and more items” added to keep the fire going, KOIN, Portland’s CBS affiliate, reported.

Yellow-clad members of the group Moms United for Black Lives Matter went over to the fire and put it out with bottles of water and stamped it out around 1 am, according to the KOIN6 report.

Protestors later built a new fire; the reporter did not specify whether the second fire consumed more Bibles.

A video reposted online Aug. 1 by journalists covering the protests appears to show groups of masked people burning American flags and several pieces of paper and books, including one with the words “Holy Bible” visible on the cover.

That video appears to have originated from the Russia-controlled Ruptly video agency, and has not been verified. But Portland CBS reporter Danny Peterson also reported that a Bible was being burned, and his tweeted photos seem to capture such an event.


Elsewhere on the street, a bible is being burned

— Danny Peterson (@DannyJPeterson) August 1, 2020 According to Portland Police’s official report, people started a bonfire in the middle of Southwest 3rd Avenue in front of the federal courthouse in the early morning hours of August 1. People brought “plywood and other flammable material to keep it going,” police said.

Portland has seen more than 60 straight days of protests and unrest following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The protests often have taken the form of crowds of hundreds of masked people protesting, ostensibly, against racism, police brutality, and fascim.

The protests have garnered national and international headlines, with federal agents garnering some criticism for occasionally using tear gas and other forceful methods against protesters.

Some of the protests have been accompanied by riots and looting. In addition to extensive property damage in the city’s downtown, there have been occasional incidents of violence within or adjacent to the protests, including shootings and stabbings.

Protesters in Portland have at various times fired commercial-grade fireworks at the federal courthouse— the epicenter of the violence— and have thrown rocks, cans, water bottles, and potatoes at federal agents, the AP reported. On July 26, the protestors attempted to burn the courthouse down, police reported.

Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland has spoken out several times against the violence in his city, while encouraging Catholics to renew their faith and hope in God.

He said in a July 31 video message that although he worries about the state of the Church and the world, “it’s a great time to be a Catholic. I really think the Lord is going to ask some great things of us.”

“A lot of the unrest is legitimate, and civilized, and peaceful, and needs to be expressed, and I applaud that and absolutely support that. But we know...some of it has also become very violent and destructive and divisive,” Sample said.

Sample said in a Friday interview with EWTN News Nightly that "with the violence that has erupted here in Portland, the focus has been taken off the central issue that we all need to be looking at and addressing, and that is the issue of the remnants of racism that are still very much present in our society."

Catholics— and anyone, for that matter— should be outraged at the sin of racism, Sample said, but Catholics must be careful, rational and calm, and should avoid “virtue signaling,” instead putting in the work actually to grow in virtue and to turn to Catholic social teaching in response to racism.

The Church teaches that every person has a dignity that we, as humans, do not bestow on other humans, but rather comes from God, the archbishop said.

Sample has encouraged Catholics to read the U.S. bishops’ 2018 letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” and instructed Portland’s parishes to organize groups to read, study, and discuss the letter.

The archbishop did not respond to a request for comment Aug. 3 regarding the specific incident of the Bible burning.


Pro-life protestors arrested for sidewalk chalk

Washington D.C., Aug 3, 2020 / 01:40 pm (CNA).- Protesters were arrested Saturday for writing a pro-life message on the sidewalk outside a Washington, D.C., Planned Parenthood clinic, but say police told them before the event they would not be stopped from writing there.

On Saturday, Students for Life of America (SFLA) published a video showing two members of the group—strategic partnerships advisor Warner DePriest along with a student member—being arrested by police outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Washington’s NoMa neighborhood.

The protestors were attending a planned demonstration, co-hosted by SFLA and the Frederick Douglass Foundation, to draw attention to the abortion rate in the African-American community.

As the two protesters were writing “Pre-born Black Lives Matter” in chalk on the sidewalk, a police officer can be seen telling them “if you continue chalking, you’re going to be placed under arrest.” They continued writing, after which two other officers approached the two and placed them in handcuffs.

According to SFLA, the arrests came after assurances were given by Metropolitan Police that sidewalk painting would not be stopped during a permitted protest.

SFLA president Kristen Hawkins told CNA Aug. 3 that the group had applied for and received from police a permit to hold an assembly outside the clinic, and said the group was told directly that protestors “would not be prevented from painting” by police.

Days before the demonstration, police officials told Tina Whittington, executive vice president of SFLA, that “a ‘pandora’s box’ had been opened regarding painting,” and that the group would not be stopped from painting during their demonstration, but should use a paint that would wash away quickly, Hawkins said.

Despite those assurances, when members of the group arrived outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on Aug. 1, they were told by police they could use neither paint nor chalk to write a message, Hawkins said.

One of the two members arrested, DePriest, has written other messages in chalk at that location “20 times or more without arrest or threat of arrest,” Hawkins said.

A spokesperson for the District Metropolitan Police Department told CNA on Monday that the two protesters were given a citation and then released. The spokesperson noted that “to our knowledge” the Students for Life activists had not obtained permits to write messages on the streets and sidewalks outside the clinic.

In reference to the arrests, Metro police cited a city statute that makes it  “unlawful” to “write, mark, draw, or paint” on public property without explicit permission from city authorities. 

According to the website of the District transportation department (DDOT), sidewalks are considered public space. A spokesperson for the DDOT did not answer CNA’s inquiry by press time, as to whether a permit was needed to write a chalk message on the sidewalk, and if one had been requested and obtained by Students for Life of America.

Earlier this summer, District Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered part of 16th Street, near the White House, painted with the slogan “Black Lives Matter” during mass anti-racism protests in the city. Protesters also painted “Defund the Police” on the same street as an addition to Bowser’s message. 

In a July 20 letter to Bowser, Hawkins asked for permission to paint “Black Pre-Born Lives Matter” on the street outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on Aug. 1.

Hawkins argued in her letter to the mayor that it would be unlawful “viewpoint discrimination” if the District government painted a street with a message, and allowed protesters to paint another message, while prohibiting pro-lifers from painting their own street message.

“If you open the door to free speech on the city streets to one group, you can’t shut it to others,” Hawkins wrote to Bowser.

According to its website, the D.C. police department has arrested 455 people in connection with mass protests this summer. Most (330) of the charges filed were curfew violations, while 57 involved “felony rioting” where “tumultuous and violent conduct” poses “grave danger” or commits “serious injury to persons or serious property damage.”

Maryland Catholic schools can reopen after governor overrides county

CNA Staff, Aug 3, 2020 / 12:15 pm (CNA).- Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) issued an emergency order on August 3 ensuring non-public schools, including Catholic schools, can make their own decisions regarding reopening for in-person instruction in the coming academic year. 

The order, issued Monday, came after Montgomery County, the most populated county in the state, issued an order on July 31 prohibiting all non-public schools from opening for in-person classes before October 1. 

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said in Friday evening’s statement that “At this point the data does not suggest that in-person instruction is safe for students or teachers,” and that forcibly closing non-public schools was “necessary to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents” during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Over the weekend, Hogan issued an initial response to the Montgomery County order, saying he “strongly disagreed” with the forced closure of all non-public schools. “As long as these schools develop safe plans that follow CDC and state guidelines, they should be empowered to do what’s best for their community,” Hogan said on Aug. 1.

“This is a decision for schools and parents, not politicians.”

On Monday, the governor said that “Private and parochial schools deserve the same opportunity and flexibility to make reopening decisions based on public health guidelines.” 

“The blanket closure mandate imposed by Montgomery County was overly broad and inconsistent with the powers delegated to the county health officer,” said Hogan. 

The Archdiocese of Washington had pledged over the weekend to “review” the order. Montgomery County is part of the territory of the archdiocese. 

Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory said in a statement Sunday that the archdiocese “continues to have the health and wellbeing of our students, faculty, and parents uppermost in mind and heart as we make our decisions regarding the reopening of our Catholic schools.” 

“We will continue to strive to be both good citizens as well as to be faithful to our religious principles, pastoral mission and our obligations to our families,” Gregory said.

Friday’s announcement by the county took many private schools in the county by surprise, as there had been no mention of any sort of forced closure during meetings with health officials earlier in the week. 

Some nonpublic schools had already opted on their own to offer virtual instruction to students during the fall, and others had already begun to implement new policies in line with Centers for Disease Control guidelines on safe reopening.

Montgomery County Public Schools announced in late July that they had decided to have an all-online fall semester and begin in-person classes in February. The decision to shift to virtual learning was made without a governmental order. 

In Monday’s statement, Gov. Hogan reiterated that “Maryland’s recovery continues to be based on a flexible, community-based approach that follows science, not politics,” and that any school who is capable of following the state and CDC’s safety guidelines should be permitted to reopen. 

The governor’s statement followed claims on social media by Montgomery County residents that the decision to force non-public schools to close may have been linked to a large drop in the number of new students who enrolled in Montgomery County’s public schools for the 2020-2021 school year. The county expected approximately 2,500 new students enrolled in grades K-12 for the fall; instead, only 300 new students enrolled. 

It is unclear if or how many parents decided to pull their children from Montgomery County public schools and opt for either nonpublic schools or for homeschooling after the decision to shift to all-virtual learning. 

The CDC has warned against the risks of keeping schools shut, citing how social isolation is detrimental to a student’s health, and that students with disabilities are being denied access to necessary resources. 

“Extended school closure is harmful to children. It can lead to severe learning loss, and the need for in-person instruction is particularly important for students with heightened behavioral needs,” said the CDC in a July 23 publication titled “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools in the Fall.” 

“School closure disrupts the delivery of in-person instruction and critical services to children and families, which has negative individual and societal ramifications.  The best available evidence from countries that have opened schools indicates that COVID-19 poses low risks to school-aged children, at least in areas with low community transmission, and suggests that children are unlikely to be major drivers of the spread of the virus,” said the CDC.

After challenging California officials, Catholic home for trafficked girls set to open

Denver Newsroom, Aug 2, 2020 / 03:01 pm (CNA).- A Catholic charity that has prepared to open a home for underage victims of human trafficking has reached a resolution with California authorities after it was allegedly pressured to affirm LGBT sexuality, to inject sex hormones into any beneficiaries who identify as transgender, and to agree to drive minors to abortion clinics.

“We were able to meet the state regulations in a way that did not compromise our conscience as a Catholic agency,” Grace Williams, founder and executive director of Children of the Immaculate Heart, told CNA.

The San Diego-based Children of the Immaculate Heart, which has served adult victims of human trafficking since 2013, had aimed to open a house for girls age 12-17 who had been victims of human trafficking. The charity has sought a license for the project for three years.

In November 2019 it filed a lawsuit accusing California officials of delaying the license for the project and violating its constitutional rights. The charity had invested $600,000 in the project and was paying rent and maintenance costs of $15,000 a month.

“It was a big financial hit. It’s a one more year delay. We rented an empty facility for three years,” said Williams, who described the lawsuit as “extremely time-consuming.”

“It’s a loss for girls that couldn’t be home sooner, but we’re happy we are where we are,” she said.

The charity and the government settled outside of court after California requested the process go to mediation. On June 10 the California Department of Social Services issued the organization a provisional license to operate The Refuge as a short-term residential therapeutic program.

The provisional license means Children of the Immaculate Heart may now provide therapeutic services and support for trafficked young people referred to it by the San Diego County Department of Probation and Child Welfare Services.

In November 2019 the organization sued the California Department of Social Services and the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, alleging violation of its constitutional rights in the licensing process. The lawsuit accused government officials of ignoring the charity’s multiple requests for a final decision on its application or for clarification regarding religious objections. They tried to force the charity to agree to facilitate “religiously objectionable” practices such as driving teens to abortion clinics or to LGBTQ-affirming activities, the lawsuit alleged.

At a meeting with state and county authorities, one official reportedly told the charity’s leaders, “You’re just going to have a problem with that religious thing,” according to the lawsuit.

The charity objected that licensing officials appeared to assume that because the charity is Catholic, it would discriminate against self-identified LGBTQ youth. The officials also wrongly questioned the non-profit’s stated mission of restoring victims’ relationship with Christ.

After the lawsuit was resolved, staff training at The Refuge starts next week.

“As an organization our staff is doubling in size,” Williams said. “It’s a big push, operationally, financially, and everything.”

The home plans to open to girls referred from probation and child welfare officials in the third week of August.

The organization was founded to help girls and women “heal from their trauma and to provide opportunities for them,” said Williams, “because, honestly, there haven’t been a lot of opportunities for them.”

“We want them to become economically self-sufficient and, of course, we want them to encounter the love of Christ, which gives meaning and direction to all of our lives, and eternal life,” she said.

The Refuge works out of a four-bedroom home on two acres in Escondido in San Diego County.

It can house up to six girls who may stay for up to two years “so that they can have the best opportunity possible for healing and healthy integration into society,” the organization’s website said. The home provides targeted mental health treatment, family relationship building, life skills development like self-care and job readiness, and individualized academic coursework.

For Williams, the Catholic faith brings a deeper vision to helping victims.

“Catholic organizations are the most equipped for service,” she added, saying the Catholic understanding of human dignity can combine with professional training.

“We just have so much to offer,” said Williams, who co-chaired the San Diego Board of Supervisors’ Human Trafficking Advisory Council Victim Service Committee from 2015 to 2019.

Though there are increasing questions about difficulties for Catholic organizations operating under U.S. law, Williams had advice.

“It’s really a question of ’do not be afraid.’ I think a lot of Catholics avoid doing anything in the public square because it’s hard,” she told CNA.

“We’re going to be misunderstood, we’re going to be judged, people are not going to want us around,” she said. “However, we have everything to offer, and nothing to lose.”

“Maybe the cultural milieu is not on our side, but the constitution is on our side, which is why we felt comfortable filing the lawsuit,” she added. “In the end, we didn’t even have to finish it in court.”

The Refuge project was backed by San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan. In a 2017 letter to state officials, she called Children of the Immaculate Heart a “strong partner” and a “constant presence in the fight against human trafficking.” She urged officials to issue the license, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.

The organization has a housing and rehabilitation program for adult women survivors of sex trafficking who have children. As of December, it was serving 13 women and their 18 children.

Officials’ feedback to the group’s application for the young girls home questioned how the charity would serve non-religious youth.

Licensing officials voiced concern that the organization did not detail how it would ensure transportation to LGBTQ programs or would ensure procedures for “gender transition” medication. The state said the nonprofit did not provide an explanation or a procedure to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

Children of the Immaculate Heart said its nondiscrimination policy is adequate and that there is no rule requiring caregivers to administer medication in transgender procedures.

While California law requires the caregivers of foster youth to provide transportation to medical appointments, and to provide “age-appropriate, medically accurate information about reproductive and sexual health care,” there could be alternatives that would not involve the Catholic charity.

A state guide for foster youth case managers addresses a similar hypothetical situation, the San Diego Union-Tribune said. If a minor in foster care were to seek an abortion, and the caregiver refused to aid this effort, the minor’s case manger would have to arrange alternative transportation, for instance.

The Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund represented the charity, with the Thomas More Society as co-counsel.

“The extraordinary women at Children of the Immaculate Heart just want to take care of commercially sexually exploited girls without being forced to violate their faith,” Daniel Piedra, executive director of the Freedom of Conscience Defense fund, said in November. “This case does not endanger the personal rights or health of girls. It only deals with a discriminatory mandate imposed by anti-Christian government officials.”

“The longer government bureaucrats place radical identity politics over saving innocent prostituted teen girls, the more money traffickers can make,” Pedra charged, claiming the government’s actions were “not just unconstitutional; they’re downright evil.”

On Aug. 2, you can get this St. Francis-themed indulgence

New York City, N.Y., Aug 2, 2020 / 03:18 am (CNA).- Today's feast of Our Lady of the Angels of Porziuncola and its associated indulgence is a way to focus on the importance of Mary and the Franciscan tradition in the Church, said one friar.

The Aug. 2 feast is found in the Franciscan tradition, and marks the dedication of the parish church, called Porziuncola or “little portion,” which is one of those Italy's St. Francis of Assisi rebuilt in obedience to Christ's command to “rebuild my church.”

“The Porziuncola is at the heart of the Franciscan journey,” Father David Convertino, the development director for the Holy Name Province of the Observant Franciscans, told CNA.

“For Francis, it was his most beloved place. He lived near it with the early followers … and he loved the Porziuncola, as it was part of his devotion to Our Lady.”

An indulgence is the remission of the temporal punishment due to sins which have already been forgiven, and it can be plenary or partial.


A plenary indulgence requires that the individual be in the state of grace by the completion of the acts, and have complete detachment from sin. The person must also sacramentally confess their sins and receive Communion, up to about 20 days before or after the indulgenced act.

Anyone who visits a Catholic church with the intention of honoring Our Lady of the Angels and recites the Creed, the Our Father, and prays for the Pope's intentions, may receive a plenary indulgence on Aug. 2.

“Any kind of a prayer form that helps people come closer to God is obviously a good prayer form, and certainly an indulgence is one way,” Fr. Convertino said.

“It helps us focus on, in this case, the meaning of the Porziuncola and the Franciscan tradition, how it's situated in the greater idea of the Church.”

Porziuncola located inside the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli near Assisi. Credit: emmav674 via Flickr (CC BY_NC_SA 2.0)

The Porziuncola was built in honor of Our Lady of the Angels in the fourth century, and by St. Francis' time had fallen into disrepair. The church, which was then located just outside of Assisi, became the “motherhouse” of the Franciscan orders.

“Although Francis realized that the kingdom of heaven is found in every dwelling on earth … he had learned nevertheless that the church of Saint Mary at Portiuncula was filled with more abundant grace and visited more frequently by heavenly spirits,” says the life of St. Francis written by Friar Thomas of Celano, read today by Franciscans.

“Consequently he used to say to his friars: 'See to it, my sons, that you never leave this place. If you are driven out by one door return by the other for this is truly a holy place and God’s dwelling.'”

Fr. Convertino added that the Porziuncola “was the place he chose to lie next to on his deathbed, and at that time of course you could have looked up to the city of Assisi, which he also loved so well.”

The Porziuncola, a rather small chapel, is now located inside a large basilica which was built around it, to enclose and protect it.

“You have this large basilica built over this teeny tiny little chapel,” Fr. Convertino reflected. “If that chapel wasn't there then the basilica wouldn't be there, but if the basilica wasn't there, the chapel probably wouldn't be there either, given 800 years of war, weather, and turmoil.”

For Fr. Convertino, the duality of the big church and the little church is a reflection of the relationship between the world-wide Catholic Church and the smaller communities which make it up.

“We feel the Franciscans kind of convey, we're the ones at the heart of the Church, the little church there.”

He said that each time he visits Assisi, the “experience” of the Porziuncola is “compounded more and more,” and added that “it's such a magnificent place, and the friars there are wonderful.”

Fr. Convertino also discussed the fresco now painted around the entrance of the Porziuncola, which shows St. Francis, together with some of his followers, receiving the indulgence from Christ and Our Lady.

“The idea behind the story is that Francis is asking Jesus for a Porziuncola indulgence, and Jesus is saying to Francis, 'Well, you really better ask Mary, ask my mother.'”

This article was originally published Aug. 2, 2013.

Catholic school superintendent: ‘Our kids need to go back to school’ 

Denver Newsroom, Aug 1, 2020 / 09:00 am (CNA).- Bishops and school superintendents across the US are emphasizing the importance of in-person education for the coming fall term, and are seeking to reassure parents that schools are taking the precautions necessary to keep children safe.

In Florida, where Governor Rick Scott has issued an order mandating that schools must reopen in person in the fall, superintendents say they are doing everything they can to prepare to welcome students in safely while also offering remote learning for those who need it.

Chris Pastura, superintendent of schools in the St. Petersburg diocese, told CNA in an interview July 31 that he and other leaders in the diocese believe strongly it is important for students to come back in person.

"Our kids are loved every day, they're in a community, they're in a faith community, they're celebrating the sacraments— I think our kids need that environment. Our kids need to go back to school."

"COVID is not the only dangerous thing in our society. Lack of community, loneliness, and all those kinds of things affect kids. And I think it's important for our kids to be back in school."

Florida has become a center of the US coronavirus outbreak of late, with infections on the rise over the past few months.

From a pro-life standpoint, Pastura said, the schools in his diocese will be doing comprehensive testing for their employees, and other measures such as social distancing in the classroom to protect the students.

On Monday, the Diocese of St. Petersburg sent a letter to the parents of its nearly 13,000 students asking them to sign a waiver of liability, choosing to accept the risk that their children may be sickened by coronavirus at school.

Several other dioceses in Florida and a number of others across the country are asking parents of students returning to class in-person to sign similar waivers.

Pastura said for the most part, parents are accustomed to signing waivers for almost any activity their child does. The diocese had in spring drafted a waiver for summer camps, and early in the summer began to consider adapting it for the school year, as well.

All schools are giving the option of coming back in person, or doing online learning for students in high-risk medical categories, or who may have high-risk people in their households, Pastura said. 

The idea, he said, was to create a "statement of understanding" for parents, make them aware that a child could contract coronavirus despite the school's best efforts.

"Since this is just such uncharted territory, we thought it was important for people to first realize that we are doing all kinds of plans to make sure that our students and our employees are safe, and we're trying to make sure we do this the right way."

However, Pastura said, the school cannot possibly know what children are being exposed to outside the seven hours a day they spend at school.

"The release from liability— is it overly cautious? Maybe," he said.

"But we do live in a very litigious society, and we just thought it to be prudent...providing families with a very clear statement, I think that's the responsible thing to do, I think it's the fair thing to do."

Being asked to sign a waiver for any activity can raise red flags for people, Pastura said, and because there is so much uncertainty around coronavirus, it is understandable that parents may not understand the importance of the waiver.

Pastura said he and his Catholic school colleagues at other dioceses across Florida speak regularly about their reopening plans. He said he hopes that parents will trust those in authority over the state's Catholic schools, and recognize that those authorities are creating reopening plans with students' best interests at heart.

"There's a lot that goes into these decisions, and sometimes we just have to have some faith in one another. Even if we don't agree with someone's decision, maybe we can accept that it was made in good confidence based on the information available."

The superintendent of schools for the Pensacola-Tallahassee diocese has also spoken out about the importance of opening Catholic schools in person.

"We feel that their spiritual growth is vital to them. We're educating the whole child, and spiritually is a big part of that," superintendent Mike Juhas told EWTN News Nightly.

Elsewhere, the bishops of California said this week that Catholic schools in California are taking appropriate measures against the threat of coronavirus and authorities should issue waivers to rules that bar the schools from reopening for “vital” in-person education, citing the low risk of coronavirus infection among children.

Initially, the nation’s largest Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles, with 74,000 students attending its schools, announced on June 15 that schools would be reopening for in-person learning in the fall in Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara.

However, California governor Gavin Newsom said on July 17 that schools in the state where coronavirus cases were high would remain closed for in-person learning.

Meanwhile, in Texas where COVID-19 cases have soared in the summer, the state is granting religious private schools the freedom to decide for themselves how to reopen in the fall.

In a July 29 joint op-ed, the archbishops of New York Boston and Los Angeles exhorted Congress and President Trump to adopt a federal scholarship tax credit modeled after successful state-level credits in order to assist private schools. Such a program would now be possible following the Supreme Court’s landmark June ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, they said.

The bishops argued that Catholic schools— many of which are facing closure amid the pandemic— are worth saving because of their savings to taxpayers and their success in creating successful and well-formed citizens.

“Students and families for generations have benefited from Catholic schools, which have benefited America as a whole. This is now in serious jeopardy, as another sad legacy of the coronavirus pandemic,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, and Archbishop José Gómez wrote.

“Urgent action by President Donald Trump and Congress to meet the needs of Catholic and other school families will preserve this important education option for generations to come and prevent added financial burdens on our government school systems.”